The Forum, Northampton

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I was a pupil of Weston Favell Upper School on Booth Lane in Northampton between 1978 and 1983. You can look for it today: Weston Favell Academy sits on the same site, redeveloped during the two-tier revolution that saw away with middle schools to an extent that I no longer recognise it from the road. (There’s a fence all the way around it now, which there never was, to keep people in and out.) In my day, it was the comprehensive establishment of choice for those who did not wish to join the segregated boys’ school or the school for girls. It nestled beside a dual carriageway known locally as Lumbertubs Way or on maps as the A43, on the other side of which was Lings Upper School. Due to this proximity, come the end of term, there tended to be rumours of war: a “fight” with the rival Lings kids. We were separated by the A43 but joined by an underpass. Here is the school I no longer recognise:

I only remember the threat of violence turning corporeal once. As I unlocked my bike from the bike sheds on the last day of term around the turn of the decade, a sort of battle cry went up and a contingent from Weston Favell amassed on the border, with the prospect of Lings kids swarming through the subterranean Checkpoint Charlie for the fabled clash. My memory is that it came to nothing more than rhetoric. A lot of kids ran through the bike sheds, but I assumed they were our boys, running away. I got on my bike and cycled home through the village back to Abington Vale, my own estate. It was a phony war. There was neither fire nor fury.

Lings had a reputation. For being hard. Whether this was socioeconomic or geographical – or simply mythical – is hard to confirm. The estates on the “other” side of Lumbertubs Way (I bet Martin Amis wishes he’d come up with that name) had a largely unearned status as the badlands. When I befriended an older boy from the other side of the tracks, my mum was a bit iffy. But I was 17 then, and knew no borders, and had no understanding of what was or wasn’t social housing. (She worked as a secretary at Lings Upper School, so had insider knowledge; I simply saw outlaw cool and wanted to be part of it.) Circa 1982-1983 I spent as much time on those estates as I did in the leafier Abington Vale. I expect this was like the cool kids in New York in the 70s hanging out in Chelsea and the East Village.

But let’s rewind to March 1978, when I was still at Abington Vale Middle School (don’t look for that one), just turned 13, but 12 in all but name, and awkward with it. Smaller than average height, Star Wars fan, Look-In reader, keen marbles player, but doing my best to create my own style (untucked shirts over white t-shirt, pin-striped “bags”, which were kind of post-Glam rock bovver flares, white trainers, centre parting), I had discovered my own hormones and felt locked out of the love-in. In what would have been our penultimate term at “Abby” Vale, I was tilting at my teens, rather than fully signed up. Our form teacher, Mrs Dennison, one of the nice ones, took us to see a film for educational purposes: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Lings Forum Cinema. (We were reading Harper Lee’s novel in English at the time, although quite why a black-and-white film made in 1962 was doing the rounds in 1978 remains a mystery.) I noted in my 1978 diary that the film was “crap”, but that I sat next to Tracey Allen, one of many forbidden objects of my nascent affection in the fourth year. I hardly need to add, but did: “Didn’t do anything though. Huh.”

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So here we have not only my first visit to the Forum Cinema, which is still going by the way (and has been smartly reupholstered by the look of these photos), but also the first time – by random selection – I’d sat next to a girl I knew in a cinema, albeit as well as the rest of Form 4-1. Tracey Allen did not choose to sit next to me, it just happened as we filed in. I have revised my judgement, and the film isn’t “crap”, but you can see why I was self-conscious enough to make that rash appraisal. Tracey Allen was one of those girls who seemed about five years older. It happens at that age. A fissure forms, doesn’t it? A fissure that yawns into an abyss faster than a 13-year-old can weave afresh.

That same year, Dad took me to Lings (we called the Forum “Lings”) to see Monty Python & The Holy Grail. A pivotal father-son bonding moment, as Mum didn’t like Monty Python, and Simon, two years younger, was only interested in war and soldiers, so Dad and I formed a comedy alliance. (Years later, I bought tickets to see Spamalot with him in the West End of glittering London, as if to complete the circle.)

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The Forum opened in 1974 as part of the Weston Favell Shopping Centre, colloquially known by the brasher, perhaps rejected name Supacentre. It is an enclosed complex in the American style, that genuflects to the motor car, situated on the eastern edge of Northampton, apropos of the aforementioned estates, Weston Favell village, Booth Lane and marauding Lings kids. A listing I found online states that the Centre offers approximately 307,763 ft² (approx. 28,592 m²) of retail accommodation arranged over two floors with 1,150 free parking spaces. (That it is still commercially anchored by one of the largest Tesco Extra supermarkets in the UK is interesting only in that it has been thus since 1974: a long covenant for a shop.)

An article on the occasion of the Centre’s 40th anniversary in 2014 in the Chronicle & Echo remembered how it was “designed to be a central hub for the local community, including a church and a nursery school, as well as shops and eateries.” It was opened by Baroness Evelyn Sharp, a retired Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government who, in 1976, became the first woman Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers. One assumes Tony Blackburn was too expensive. She said that it “exceeded her hopes” despite initial doubts. Its catchment area covers roughly 235,000 people as far as Kettering and Corby. Verily, it is a beacon. There used to be a bridge over the Wellingborough Road from another patchwork of estates that was designed like a long tube. A certain degree of sci-fi pleasure was gained from using it, which took a long time to wear off.

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Once enrolled at Weston Favell Upper, I began to treat the area as my own, and the dawn of the 80s was marked by a solidifying of my boyhood love of films. The ABC was our central place of worship and had been for the latest James Bond or Disney while growing up, and will be discussed separately, but Lings offered less glamorous blockbusters, after a gestation period, shown at a much reduced price. My new filmgoing companion Paul Garner (who’d been at a different middle school) and I took full advantage, and saw any number of big-name films we’d read about in Film Review magazine, but which must have bypassed the ABC, as it only had two screens. (Film Review was my first regular movie magazine. Formerly the ABC Film Review, as it was affiliated with the cinema chain, I devoured its every page and began to get ahead of the curve of exciting new releases. I even sent away for back issues from the 70s to own its coverage of Jaws and The Omen.)

Brubaker, a prison drama starring Robert Redford was one that stands out. Also, The Frisco Kid, starring Gene Wilder and breakout Star Wars star Harrison Ford. I made a deal with Dad’s sister Auntie Margaret whereby she agreed to accompany me to Lings to see a few “AA” horrors, as she’d expressed an interest in the genre and Uncle Alan obviously wasn’t keen. This only stretched to one trip in the end, but we did see Coma, a film I’ll always sit down to if it’s on the telly to this day and which I was dying to see in 1979. (I reviewed Michael Crichton’s hospital thriller in my 14-year-old diary with great eloquence: “Boy it was an ace film. Good nasty bits e.g. dead bodies in plastic bags in the freezer, maintenance man getting electrocuted, operations, autopsy, suspended bodies, great ‘AA’ stuff.”)

Paul Garner and I also saw Blade Runner at Lings, having already seen and been captivated by it at the ABC. The experience was made especially memorable by the lone gentleman who sat across the aisle from us on the left and laughed uproariously and in random places in the dark throughout. Either we were too scared of the social embarrassment to leave, and didn’t want to draw the man’s attention, or we were simply too dedicated to seeing the film again. We stuck it out.

All these memories are thanks to Lings, which still only charges £6.50 for a non-concessionary peak-time ticket and has Silver Screenings on a Tuesday morning – an offer my Mum and Dad often take them up on – and £3.50 on Fridays.

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My most memorable evening at Lings was, however, horrific. Again, it’s a symptom of the pre-video age that major theatrical releases were re-issued and sent round the block again. This is obviously how I saw Jaws in 1977, two years after release; still one of the scariest films ever made, it carried an “A” certificate, watermarking it as less scary than Coma. There was no such wriggle room in 1980, when The Exorcist had another outing, clearly stamped with an “X”, and a group of us from Weston Favell Upper School decided we’d all go and see it on weekday night.

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I was 15, and looked 14. Most of us were 15, but some boys are bigger than others, and girls, who had it easy, could mature instantly with makeup. I was below average height, facially hairless and my voice hadn’t broken. Others among my male circle of friends were early shavers, or had the vertical axis on their side. Anyway, eschewing the prospect of a house party I think thrown by a girl called Joanna – with parental veto – an ad hoc gang of us marched up to the Forum and attempted nonchalance as the queue shuffled forward to the box office window. The hopeful eight. (There’s only one screen at Lings, so there was only one film we could have been queuing up for.) My memory of the ritual and inevitable humiliation that followed is that I was asked my age by the woman behind the window with the ticket-spewing machine. I told her in my soprano that I was 18, and she didn’t believe me. So I surrendered and skulked off. I didn’t have the conviction to lie, and in any case they can smell it on you. My recollection, hazy with self-loathing, is that a couple of us didn’t get past the window, and didn’t see Linda Blair’s head spin round while she projectile-vomited Satanic green bile.

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Not old enough to drown our sorrows in a pub, which wouldn’t have served us, I suspect the rejected among us hung around the “viewing area” above the pool and watched other kids splashing about, which counted as something to do in the late 70s and early 80s. A year after my dispossession at The Exorcist, this time aged a world-weary 16, Dad took me to the ABC in town to see Kentucky Fried Movie, a fabled, racy, “X”-certificate comedy compendium from the director of Animal House (which had itself been a racy enough “AA”). When challenged by the lady at the box office, he admitted that I was not 18 (no better a liar than I turned out to be), but firmly assured her that, as his father, he was happy for his son to see the film. This did not wash. We stormed out. I think I eventually rented The Exorcist and Kentucky Fried Movie on VHS during a spree in 1983, when, ironically, I was old enough.

Fortunately, I had joined a local Film Society, where, as a member, you could see “X” films without challenge, for intellectual and academic reasons. But that’s another blog entry.

 

 

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The Odeon, Northampton

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This is the first cinema I ever went to, the Northampton Odeon. Just there, at the back of my hometown’s historic Market Square, the building with the awning and the “CAFÉ” sign on top. As old as you think I am, it wasn’t as long ago as the year this charming photograph was taken. The cars didn’t look quite so Laurel and Hardy when I crossed the picture palace’s threshold, although if they had, I wouldn’t have minded. I was taken there, possibly by car, by my granddad – my mum’s father, known to us as Pap Reg, who worked for the Amalgamated Engineering Union and needed a car for the job. I was taken there to see the 19th Walt Disney feature animation The Jungle Book, released in the United States in October 1967 after a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but not until March 1968 in the UK, around the time of my third birthday. It seems like a very young age, but evidence points in that direction. (It must have been on that first theatrical outing as records show that The Jungle Book wasn’t sent back out into cinemas here until 1983.)

Thanks to the website Cinema Treasures, and specifically to contributor Ken Roe, I know more about the Northampton Odeon than I did in 1968. Originally a Corn Exchange, it opened on 29 March 1851, and boasted a “barrel vaulted wooden ceiling” and an organ, which was upgraded at various stages. Mainly used for meetings and functions, it hosted its first travelling film shows from 1900 and became a fully-fledged cinema on 2 August 1920, with seating for 2,020 in stalls and circle. Improvements over the decades included lifts, a roof garden and tea room. The Exchange Cinema, as it was then known, was the first outside London to put on a talkie, The Singing Fool.

The Exchange became the Gaumont, then, in March 1964, the Odeon. It was converted into a Top Rank bingo hall in 1974, a seismic event I remember vividly.

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Photo: Paul Bland

This was the first act of cultural vandalism I had encountered in my short life, equivalent in its power to chip away at a nine-year-old’s existential innocence as the death of James Beck, Private Walker on Dad’s Army, had been a year earlier. Thankfully, Northampton still had the ABC, which served my cinemagoing needs until I left for London in the mid-80s.

In the 90s, the former Odeon was sold off again and transformed into some kind of Rock Café, albeit Grade II listed.) The website Playing Bingo (a “UK Retail and Online Bingo Resource”) has a Press Cuttings section that contains pleasingly grainy newspaper clippings relating to bingo. On it, I found these testimonies to the heinous closure of the Odeon from our local paper the Chronicle & Echo (presumably less heinous to the booming bingo sector).

My memories of the inside of the Odeon cinema are quite murky. I was very young. The past coagulates. I remember the dark. I remember the B-picture, a Disney live-action yarn called Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (which was technically the first film I ever saw in a cinema). And I remember The Jungle Book. Its famous songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (except its most famous, The Bare Necessities, which was written by Terry Gilkyson) quickly felt like standards, excerpted and featured on Disney Time on the BBC throughout the 60s and 70s and thereafter. From ’67, rarely did one of these celebrity-hosted Bank Holidays clip compendiums go by without a dose of The Jungle Book. This film was in our DNA.

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I feel like I was given the Storyteller version of the soundtrack LP concurrently with being taken to the film, as the two merge in my mind. That this handsomely packaged record’s narration was not even by Sebastian Cabot (who narrated the film as Bagheera), but another actor, did not dim its vitality for me. I was too young to notice, or care. From the booklet I learned all the dialogue and most of the lyrics off by heart, through repeated plays, and it took The Aristocats to knock it off my personal number one spot in 1970. I remember for a birthday treat, my dad borrowing Uncle Brian’s cine projector and renting some spools of Disney cartoons – where or who from, I cannot imagine; I trust they were legit – which included a substantial clip of The Aristocats (the part where Roquefort the mouse has to locate Scat Cat and his gang in some scary alley, and the English, guitar-playing cat with the shades and the beads appears upside down at the end of a tunnel created by a dustbin). That must have felt like a significant seizure of the means of production: being able to show a film on a bare wall through a whirring, glowing, overheating projector. And, perhaps more importantly, show it again and again, and, when we got bored, spool it backwards to bottomless merriment.

I’m off at tangents because my first steps inside the carpeted foyer of a picturehouse are lost to me, other than I know I made them, it’s Collins family lore. I remember the film being big and loud, and being swept up into it, more than swept along by it, and I remember the LP as it was my personal stake in the franchise. But I also accept that I’ve come to memorialise and perhaps mythologise this momentous visit in the years since. I know now how important a step it was.

My other granddad, Pap Collins, took my younger sister Melissa to see her first film at the cinema some years later, presumably the Odeon. The film was the remake of the Shangri-La musical The Lost Horizon, released in 1973, when she must also have been three. She complained to Pap that it was too loud and they had to leave the cinema. One imagines that three-year-olds today are more media-savvy than we were, and are probably already watching feature films on their parents’ phones.

Here, thanks to the armchair archivists at Cinema Treasures, is the Odeon again, by the looks of the Instamatic photo, snapped in the 70s. Already behind an armature of scaffolding, it is doomed to a future of clickety-click and hot wings. (I wish I could read the titles of the two films it was showing.)

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Today, Northampton is amply served by two out-of-town multiplexes, and two smaller cinemas, the suburban Lings Forum (which we’ll cover in a separate post, as it also weaves into my childhood), and, closer to the centre of town, the splendidly named Errol Flynn Filmhouse, which opened in 2013, has one screen with room for 90, and boasts leather seats. I have never visited it, but know its subterranean location as it’s housed with the impressive Derngate Theatre complex. Note to self.

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Neither have I ever patronised the nine-screen Cineworld in the west, which heralded the new American age of car parks, escalators and a two-for-one cocktail in Frankie & Benny’s in 1995, located amid a redevelopment called Sixfields which also encompasses Northampton’s football ground of the same name, a bowling alley, all the big branded eating and drinking holes, a gym and some big shops. (Cineworld started out as an MGM, then turned into a Virgin, then a UGC, as is the bloodless, boardroom-shuffling way of corporate entertainment conglomerates.) There is also a Vue (formerly a UCI) multiplex, with ten screens in Mare Fair in the centre of town. It used to be the headquarters of Barclaycard, one of the big employers in Northampton, which moved out of town to Brackmills in the east, ironically like cinemas usually do. The Vue’s in the Sol Central complex, which also boasts a hotel, spa and gym. It’s walking distance from where the Odeon used to stand.

(Thanks for Dave Thacker for the detail. I don’t get back to the town as often as I once did.)

And that, in a redevelopmental nutshell, is progress. To quote The Jungle Book, “Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found.”